Here’s a plein air pastel painted in Fontaine de Vaucluse, where the watercress grows and glows bright green in the Sorgue River. Pastel, 9 x 12 inches

by Jude Tolar

France — where beauty resides in every village and field — is a favorite destination for me. I love traveling there and painting from life the beauty I see. How did my recent trip go? Find out here…

I had a recent autumn trip to France with a fellow American artist. We travelled from Paris to Provence by train, and rented a car. We spent 12 days in Provence, staying in La Ciotat (on the Mediterranean coast near Marseille) and St. Rémy-de-Provence. Some days we explored those two villages in great detail, where a two-block walk sometimes took an hour to complete. Side trips to Mouries, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, Les Baux-de-Provence, and Goult offered additional beauty and culture.

Some Italian visitors asked if they could take photos of me painting. We also took some group selfies. Ciao!
Another plein air painting, another handy ledge for my pastel box. I also carry an Easel Butler to hold the pastel box when there are no ledges or stable ground surfaces.
So many beautiful portes et volets (doors and windows) in Provence. There seem to be infinite colors and styles. I paint as many of them as I can. “Bleu Vert,” pastel, 9 x 12 inches painted en plein air

I took my lightweight plein air gear for pastel painting with me and painted a baker’s dozen plein air pastel paintings in Provençal villages and in the countryside. I painted at various times of day: morning, afternoon, and at the golden hour before twilight.

I don’t often paint such complex landscape scenes, but I had to paint this one. Vineyards, olive trees, and cypresses near Les Baux-de-Provence. 9 x 12 inches painted en plein air while standing on wild oregano
Plein air paintings of landscapes call for judicious editing. Edit, edit, edit.
First plein air of the trip that included buildings. The mistral wind was blowing, so I tried to put a bit of that action and energy in the painting. Pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air (and wind)

Plein air painting abroad has taught me some things. I’ve learned to plan for limited storage space and beaucoup hauling of gear. I hand-carry my art bag through airports and into planes, trains, petite autos, equally petite rooms, and via many flights of stairs. I take only what I have to have: pastels (hard and soft) in a wide range of values and colors; pre-cut paper in one size only, 9 x 12 inches; a small and lightweight easel; pre-folded paper towels; zip-top freezer bags in various sizes; and a tracing pad for painting storage. For unforeseen emergencies: small amounts of duct tape, electrical tape, masking tape, plus rubber bands and bungee cords.

The plane trees lining the avenues coming into St. Remy-de-Provence always make my heart flutter. I paint them every time I’m there. “J’adore Ces Arbres,” pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air
I think I paint this complex scene better each successive time. Love these tunnels of majestic plane trees.
Loved the beautiful entrance to the St. Rémy-de-Provence library. Pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air

A few plein air highlights from this Provençal adventure:

  • I found such a wealth of subject matter within a few miles — or within a few blocks — of each other. I painted vineyards, centuries-old doorways, and plane trees planted by Napoleon. I was smitten with an olive grove in a village and a tunnel of trees just outside of it.
  • One morning I set up beside a road to paint a vineyard. As I painted, I kept smelling something herbal. Something pungent and unfamiliar in that context, like sage or fennel. I looked down and realized I was standing in a large swath of wild oregano.
  • I connected with people from all over the world. We talked via hand signals, a mix of English/French/other languages, and scribbles in my sketchbook.
  • France has the best baguettes ever. Also, where else can you choose from 365 plus kinds of fromage(cheese) for your plein air painting déjeuner à midi/picnic? Next time I plan to paint my lunch before eating it.
An olive grove, tucked into the village of St. Rémy-de-Provence. Its shadows were as intriguing as the trees themselves. Pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air
The sunlight on the olive grove was interrupted by clouds. That is why I take reference photos, just in case I need them.
A burly plane tree shades and holds court in one of the places (plazas) of St. Rémy-de-Provence. Pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air
I look for flat surfaces to hold my box of pastels. Here I used the ledge of a fountain.

There were only minor lowlights:

  • Plein air painting can be capricious. The weather can change, insects can invade, and the pastel stick that I drop is always the same color as the ground on which it lands. Provence offers another twist: le mistral, high winds that can last several days. Our first days in St. Rémy-de-Provence were the last days of a mistral event. I had to paint anyway, as the Place Jules Pelissier wooed me with its massive plane trees and colorful buildings. I sat to paint, clutching the painting on my lap, rather than risk my easel blowing over or my painting whooshing down the rue.
  • New subject matter is challenging. Architecture and beaches are uncommon models for me. Each region has its own lighting and color palette to learn. My experience in painting florals, trees, landscapes lends little to the geometry of buildings and the ebb and flow of waves. I had to find ways to render urban models and beach scenes in a quick, plein air fashion, while staying true to my painting style.
  • Thirdly, we can’t fly with isopropyl alcohol (which I use for some underpainting). One must remember that the local marchés that sell that usually close two hours for lunch.
Hard to concentrate on painting when there’s a fromagerie (cheese shop) right next door. Goult, France.
Painted at the evening golden hour in St. Rémy-de-Provence. This tree and building bathed in golden light called to me. Pastel, 12 x 9 inches, painted en plein air
The perfect view, accompanied by the perfect ledge for holding my pastel box

All in all, the pleasures of painting en plein air in the Provençal region of France far exceeded any hitches. I came home with 13 plein air pastel paintings, some of which will be the basis of studio pieces. Then, as always, I’ll recall the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and beauty of that extraordinary place. I’m already planning for my next chance to be in France.

This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.

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